James Wright grew up in significant poverty. Neither one of his parents finished high school, and both worked low paying jobs. James Wright himself almost failed to finish high school when he suffered a nervous breakdown. He ended up missing a year, returning and then joining the army. When he returned from his station in Japan, he attended college and eventually earned his doctorate degree (American Academy of Poets). Having experienced poverty first hand, much of Wright’s poetry resonates with the working class. ‘Beautiful Ohio’, in particular, has an outlook on the beauty that clearly comes from a working man’s point of view.
Pattern, Rhyme Scheme, and Rhythm
When James Wright first began to publish his poetry, he adhered to the traditional forms of stanzas, rhyme schemes, and rhythm. In his later works, he broke free of some of the restraints of these traditional forms of writing and used free verse. This particular poem, being one of his later poems, does not adhere to a particular rhyme scheme or rhythm, and yet the lines flow into one another, creating a type of rhythm all his own.
Beautiful Ohio Analysis
Those old Winnebago men
Knew what they were singing.
James Wright begins ‘Beautiful Ohio’ of his homeland by giving honor to the men that once occupied that land. The speaker mentions “those old Winnebago men”. He refers to the Native Americans who occupied his homeland long ago. He claims that they knew what they were singing. He thought of the chants and the songs of the Native American men. He may not know the meaning of what they were saying, but they certainly knew. The speaker here does not wonder what they were saying, but is satisfied to conclude that they knew what they were singing about. The title and context of ‘Beautiful Ohio’ implies that they were perhaps singing of the beauty of the land. The speaker leads the reader to believe that the rest of this poem will be after the same likeness, praising the beauty of Ohio.
All summer long and all alone,
Above the sewer main.
With these lines, the speaker reveals that he will be singing of a different kind of beauty from what the Winnebago men sang of. He describes himself as being alone all summer long. This suggests that he has had sufficient time to think and to ponder. He then says that he “found a way to sit on a railroad tie above the sewer main”. This poem suddenly takes a turn, and the irony of it leaves the reader to question the speaker’s meaning. The title of the poem, ‘Beautiful Ohio‘, leads the reader to believe that this will describe the beautiful nature to be seen in Ohio. The first line speaks of the Native Americans who once occupied the land. Thus, it is natural for the reader to conclude that the speaker is going to describe those untouched areas of nature which connect him with the land’s former inhabitants. Just when it seems that the speaker would describe some of the most beautiful parts of Ohio’s nature, he says that he is sitting on a railroad tie above a sewer. This is a rather shocking shift, as one would not normally consider railroads and sewers as beautiful.
It spilled a shining waterfall out of a pipe
Somebody had gouged through the slanted earth.
The speaker then goes into detail about this “waterfall” above the sewer main. He says that it “spilled a shining waterfall out of a pipe somebody had gouged through the slanted earth”. At this point, the reader is likely apt to wonder whether the speaker is speaking in sarcasm, criticizing his people for the destruction of natural beauty and replacing it with man-made sewers and railroads. But the speaker does not quite take a sarcastic tone, and it makes the reader wonder at his meaning.
Sixteen thousand and five hundred more or less people
With the speed of light.
At this point in ‘Beautiful Ohio’, the speaker mentions the “sixteen thousand and five hundred” people who occupy his native land. He claims that they are the reason that this river “quickens with the speed of light”. At this point, it is still unclear whether the speaker is criticizing his people with a sarcastic tone, or whether he speaks in earnest.
And the light caught there
In the instant of that waterfall.
Here, the speaker gives a bit more depth to his feelings toward his homeland. When he says, “the light caught there the solid speed of their lives in the instant of that waterfall” it reveals that the speaker views this sewer main as representative of the people of his homeland. Again, the reader can question whether this speaker is being sarcastic in comparing his people to a sewer, but his tone is not clearly one of sarcasm.
I know what we call it
I call it beauty
With these lines, the speaker reveals that he speaks in earnest. He does not care what other people call the sewer main. In fact, he admits that he knows “what [they] call it most of the time” but asserts that he has his own song for the sewer main. And he admits that, unlike most people, he “call[s] it beauty”. With these ending lines, the speaker reveals that the reason he finds the sewer main and the railroad beautiful, is not because of the beauty they hold in and of themselves. He admits that most people would not find them beautiful at all. However, he connects with the railroad and the sewer main because they represent the work of the sixteen thousand and five hundred (and some) people that have been a part of what he has been a part of, the building up of the city. It then becomes clear that this speaker is not talking about the beauty of nature, but the beauty of people. This gives the title a whole new meaning. Suddenly “Beautiful Ohio” does not refer to the land of the state of Ohio, but to the people who worked together to make it what it is today. He looks back on his part in the building up of a city within his state, and he finds it beautiful. He feels a strong connection to the people of his homeland, and he views the sewer main and the railroad as representations of what they did as a group of people working together to build up the cities that make up the beautiful state of Ohio.